Tuesday, March 22, 2011



Good or bad, love ‘em or hate ’em, we can’t write mysteries without creating good characters. For me, choosing great character names is (second to the plot) what I enjoy most about the whole writing process.

We’re not working with a screenplay for movies or TV, so we don’t have actors to pronounce a name for us. It’s essential to me that the reader be able to pronounce the names I put in print. Fred is simple, Fredricka is probably a woman, while Friedrich is kinda like “fried rich.” Let’s be honest, you’ve all read a book with strange-sounding names. So I say all names out loud, sometimes I try them out on friends.

But that’s basic. The real challenge is to find fascinating names that are also pronounceable to readers. Fred, Barbara, Louise, common-place names always sound so . . . so common-place. I admit to a bit of bias in favor of the exotic, but I’m not able to create exotic names without a lot of help.

Movies remain a great source. When the credits roll at the beginning (or these days, at the end), I’m agog at the myriad possibilities that scroll before me. Some of my best character names come from combinations of first and last names.

It’s a challenge to take a foreign name and weave it into my novels, which are set in the southwest US. I admit it’s easier to blend them in because of the wide range of nationalities out here: Mexico is just 60 miles to the south, I’m surrounded by at least five native American nations. But that’s my locale; yours is undoubtably also culturally rich. Try adding a character with an exotic name in your next book.

I’m influenced by simple sources. Like roadside signs. Once, passing a dirt road named Chavez Siding, I instantly realized I had a name for a bad, bad character: Chavez Sliding. Watching people at an airport, I look for distinguishing marks - this led to another bad man named Charley Thumb. I’ve also taken names off old billboards.

Finally, I decide that somewhere in every book I’ll have at least one definitely foreign character. In these cases, where I’ve already “built” a character, I need the name before I can send the book off to my editor. In Ransom My Soul, novel #8, I have a group of criminals from the Ukraine; this started out simply because my GI doctor is Borys, a Ukrainian. The assistant US attorney became Quong Ma, a Vietnamese, a name taken from a newspaper article.

I realize all this sounds a bit over-the-top. Perhaps. But the long slogslogslog of writing a novel over months and months takes a bit of fancy to keep me interested in certain characters.

Who knows, some day I may “borrow” one of your character names because it sounds wonderful.

David Cole is overcoming five years of procrastinations and is finally attacking his eighth novel, Ransom My Soul - a somewhat bleak novel of home invasions, drug cartels and human smuggling in southern Arizona, tempered (hopefully) with a fine romance and love story. David's short story, JaneJohnDoe.com, is featured in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Press); he's also working on several non-fiction books about law enforcement, including The Blue Ceiling, a compilation of personal stories about women in law enforcement.


  1. I'll be losing sleep over this Chavez Siding! He sounds like one bad hat.

    Nifty blog, David!


  2. I find some pretty interesting names when you look at politicians. Grant Devine was a fave...doesn't he sound just, well, divine!

  3. Choosing names is one of the best parts of writing! I like to start with names & will often walk around for days trying them out before deciding. And then the character just sort of takes shape from that point.

    Since the editor chose the names of the main characters in my series, my pleasure has been in trying for quirky Southern names for the secondary set. It is fun.

  4. I am struggling to settle on a first name for my protagonist. Thought I had her name settled long ago, but suddenly it didn't feel right for the character that had formed in my mind.

    I, too, have had fun selecting some middle European character names. Something known or common in the country of origin, but easy to pronounce for the North American reader.